Judith Daluz packed her T-shirts and underwear into a plastic Food Emporium bag, preparing to leave forever. She hurried up Broadway on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, fumbling with her cell phone to call Josie, a housekeeper for another family who lived a few blocks up. Judith was following their plan. She was to leave her employer’s apartment at one p.m. so that she could get to Josie’s for lunch, walk Josie’s employer’s dog and pick his kids up from school, then wait in a restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue until five p.m. Another housekeeper working for a third family, Daisy, would pick Judith up, take her to Jamaica, Queens, and then Judith Daluz would officially be in hiding.
Judith was a housekeeper, tending to the family of a diplomat and his wife for the past year. The money she sent back to the Philippines helped securely move her own family into her home country’s middle class. Her kids could pick out clothes they felt comfortable in. She was putting her son, Julius Vincent, “JV” for short, through nursing school and could finally afford epilepsy medication for her youngest son, Jhon-Michael.
But Judith’s life in America was not what she had pictured. She says her employer did not allow her to leave his family’s home unsupervised. She was told not to talk to other Filipinos who she might run into on the street, and she was not allowed to make connections with anyone outside of the family, under threat of deportation. With no training, Judith babysat the family’s little girl, who had autism and required medication. Without knowing better, the daughter hit Judith and pulled her hair. The child’s mother simply stood by and watched as the girl stuck plastic straws in Judith’s ears while Judith cleaned the family’s dishes.
Judith says the diplomat initially promised her $1,800 a month in compensation, but later broke their contract and only paid her $500 each month after her arrival in America. She sent $300 from those payments back to the Philippines and saved whatever she could to, maybe, one day, afford a plane ticket back.
“It was very sad. But I am always counting the money,” Judith says.
Stories like Judith’s are not uncommon among the 4,000 people who leave the Philippines every day in search of work. According to Filipino census data, there were 2.3 million Filipino workers overseas in 2013 out of a population of over ninety-eight million. Remittances make up approximately 10% of the Philippines’ GDP — almost $27 billion in 2013. The majority of migrant workers from the Philippines are unskilled laborers, so many of them perform domestic work to get by.
According to the National Human Trafficking Research Center, there were 818 cases of labor trafficking in the United States last year. All of them were tricked, forced or coerced into overseas employment on false pretenses. For Judith and many others, they are only in America because their employer has procured a temporary visa for them. In Judith’s case, her wages earned in New York were keeping her family afloat, motivating her to continue working. But eventually her own helplessness outweighed the immediate needs of her family, and she decided to find another way to survive.
Judith’s saga began in the summer of 2006 with a call from her sister. During this time, Judith and her family were living off of her husband’s income as a tricycle taxi driver, supplemented by her own work selling balut, a Filipino duck embryo delicacy. To make balut, she gathered fresh duck eggs from her family coop and incubated them in her home for twenty days, then boiled them just before they were ready to hatch. Her customers devoured the embryo with vinegar. Each workday her husband returned home at sundown to look after the kids and Judith loaded the eggs into a cart to sell them along the town’s main drag. At most she would make a couple thousand Philippine pesos — about forty U.S. dollars — a week. Her husband earned seven thousand pesos a month.
Judith says that her sister worked part-time for a diplomat’s family living in Australia. The family was moving to the U.S. and looking for a housekeeper. Unwilling to move, her sister turned down the position but urged Judith to take it. It was simple, her sister told her: Go to America for free with a job that could support her family back home, while getting on the path towards U.S. citizenship.
When a diplomat moves to the U.S. they can provide a G5 visa, the document that grants legal status for temporary workers, for up to five domestic laborers. The math worked out for Judith. A single dollar was worth fifty-five Philippine pesos at the time. Her promised income of $1,800 a month would make her family wealthy.
“If we wanted nice food, or nice clothes, we really couldn’t afford it,” Judith says. “It was sad to leave, but I was like, ‘I have to go.’”
In their home, at dawn on the Sunday before Judith was to get on a plane to America, Jhon-Michael ran a high fever, becoming so dehydrated he was drifting in and out of consciousness. Judith and her husband rushed the boy to the ER and stayed with him in the hospital for the next forty-eight hours. Judith decided she still had to leave for America, because her son couldn’t survive on the little money she and her husband made.
After packing her bags and saying goodbye to her two-year-old boy, plane ticket in hand, her sister called and told her that the contract had been a lie, that she would only be getting $500 a month. Judith was shocked but reasoned that $500 is still good money in the Philippines. She had friends working in Hong Kong who were making half that.
“What was I gonna do? Judith says. “Everything was done.”
She flew to the U.S. and began work. To this day, Judith cannot get through describing what happened over the course of the next few months without her eyes welling up.
She lived and worked inside the diplomat’s home on the Upper West Side. Rules were strict there. Judith was not allowed to leave the building unattended and she was not to tell anyone about what went on inside the house. If the family saw her talking to another Filipino, Judith would be on the next flight back home. The family held on to her passport.
With her meager salary, she would usually eat bread, rice or noodles for lunch. Her employer would host dinner parties and not allow Judith to eat anything. Sometimes she would sneak bread during the parties and scarf it down in the bathroom.
Judith says she was not permitted to use the family’s dishwasher or washing machine because her employer did not want to “waste money.” So every night Judith cleaned the family’s clothes in the bathtub. From the constant scrubbing she developed tendonitis in her arm, which still ails her.
Once, after his daughter soiled her bed in the middle of the night, the diplomat banged on Judith’s door, waking her up and instructing her to clean his daughter’s sheets by hand in the tub.
On another occasion, Judith says the diplomat asked her to hand-sew his daughter’s teddy bear, which she had from the time she was born. It was falling apart and the task took Judith all night. She pricked her finger at one point, but there was no time to stop. She had to keep working and wipe her blood away from the fur. After she finally finished, Judith then had to wash the family’s dishes and clean their clothes. Her finger began to swell that night and pretty soon it was infected and throbbing. Her employer gave her a Tylenol. The intense pain traveled up her arm. During a medical visit for the family’s little girl, Judith was able to convince the Filipino doctor to slip her a prescription for a treatment for her infection.
Judith says she was under the constant watch of her employers, and describes being verbally abused by the mother. Judith was washing a wine glass in the sink one night, the mother supervising, and the little girl punched Judith in the arm. The glass cracked against the faucet. The mother cursed Judith out in middle of the kitchen.
“Her face, it was like she was going to bite me,” Judith says.
When Judith saw other Filipinos on the street, she would try to make eye contact. She became a master of the quick eyebrow tilt — winking to find a connection, to subtly tell someone about how she was living.
Judith worked eighteen-hour days, without a day off. She says that she spent many days hiding, crying in the bathroom.
Then she met Josie, another domestic laborer who was working for a family that had employed her for eighteen years. It was around Christmas time, a handful of months after Judith began working in New York, and it was snowing. Josie was walking her employer’s dog and stopped in to Judith’s lobby. Judith bent down to play with the dog, speaking Tagalog, the native Filipino language. Only she wasn’t talking to the dog. Secretly conversing with Josie, she found out that Josie’s employers were good to her. Josie told her they were kind, respectful people. They let Josie leave when she pleased, and they permitted her to take the dog out on her own.
Judith couldn’t control herself. She asked Josie how much she was making and Josie was not shy to admit she made more than $500 a week. Judith gritted her teeth. “Yeah, uh huh, me too,” she lied.
Their employers’ kids became friends and they arranged to have play dates in the basement playroom where Judith could evade her employer’s strict supervision. The basement was an in-between space that provided some freedom for Judith. It was within the confines of the building, so Judith was allowed to watch the little girl unsupervised, while other nannies watched over their own employers’ children. Judith connected with a ring of Filipino domestic workers scattered about the Upper West Side. They cycled through play dates and became friends, unbeknownst to Judith’s employer.
After a few months, Judith began leaking information about her living and working conditions to Josie, telling her she was scared. Judith also revealed the truth about her wages, which amazed Josie. “That is illegal,” Josie insisted. “You cannot let them do that.” But Judith was supporting her family in the Philippines better than she ever had before. No matter how exploited and frightened she felt, her youngest son was still running fevers and having seizures back home. She was also afraid that if she left her job she would be deported and lose any chance that she had of becoming a U.S. citizen.
The news of how much Judith was getting paid made the rounds among the Filipino housekeepers. Judith says they insisted she get out of her employment situation.
“They would say, ‘You are not a criminal; you are here legally and you don’t need to do this,’” Judith recalls.
While Judith couldn’t conceive of other options, her new friends professed they would set her up with their own employers. They knew good people in the U.S. who would give Judith a job and vouch for her once they found out what she had been through. They told Judith to just grab a bag and run.
This is how Judith found herself packing a plastic Food Emporium bag with everything she owned, stuffing it under her shirt and huffing off to Jamaica, Queens, where she would live in fear of immigration services for the next five years.
Over that half-decade through 2013, Judith worked a myriad of domestic odd jobs. She took care of families’ kids on the weekends, or on an afternoon here and there after school. She cleaned wherever she could. If someone needed her for an hour, she would work that hour. If they needed her for a week, she was theirs for a week.
She was sharing a basement room with Daisy — one of her friends from the group of workers on the Upper West Side — and trying to keep up her routine of sending $300 a month to her family. Sometimes this meant saving less than $100 a month for herself. During this time, she divorced her husband, as money issues and the distance caused a rift to grow between them.
Judith was also now an illegal immigrant, constantly feeling as though she was on the verge of deportation. If she got a job looking after a baby, she would keep the infant in her arms, watching it intently, terrified that if anything happened she would have to call 911. She imagined the police coming, asking for her ID, and putting her on a plane to the Philippines the next day. She imagined the diplomat coming after her, punishing her for running away, and sending her back to her native country. Judith says she felt like she was “living in the shadows.”
During this same time, some of Judith’s friends pointed her in the direction of the Damayan Migrant Workers Association, an advocacy group that helps emancipate Filipino trafficking survivors and connects them with services they may need going forward. Her friends told her that she should tell people what had happened to her. They said Damayan could help her get a visa, and she would be able to live in the open.
“We go through an initial intake, we interview the worker, go through the entire story — how they met the employer, what the working conditions were like, what the living conditions were like,” says Leah Obias, community organizer at Damayan, walking through the organization’s process. “The point is that we are trying to understand what happened to them so that we can find out what services fit their needs.”
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 paved the way for victims to apply for a T visa, allowing them and their immediate family to live legally in the U.S., and fast-tracking them towards Green Cards. If Judith could prove that she had been abused and had been taken to the United States under a false promise, she would become “legal” and able to sponsor her children’s travels to America.
The Damayan Migrant Workers Association set Judith up with a pro bono lawyer who worked her through providing a written record of her story. The lawyer connected Judith with social workers and trauma specialists, who also conducted their own screenings of her story.
“It was the same process over and over, asking the same questions,” Judith says. “Trying to find out what happened inside. They’re trying to make sure I’m alright.”
She also needed a version on paper, a legal affidavit, to help her get a visa. Judith would not be able to bring her former employer to court, partially because his diplomatic immunity protected him but also because he had also left the country, so any formal litigation against him was virtually impossible. They could, however, put together a written narrative and send it to Immigration Services.
It took weeks until they finally had a version that the lawyer felt accurately portrayed the horrors of Judith’s employment.
It was February 2013 when Judith and her lawyer went to the mailbox and sent in the official request to U.S. Immigration Services. A month later, she received a notice that she was to submit fingerprints and DNA samples — her “biometrics,” which helps the government keep track of its legal residents.
Six months later, Judith was sandwiched in between kids in the backseat of the SUV driven by her new employer, an executive Josie had connected her with. On their way home from a Nantucket beach, Judith checked her voicemail to hear a message from her lawyer. She had won. She was going to get a Green Card and her kids were going to be legally allowed to enter the country to join her. In the backseat of the SUV, she doubled over in relief.
“What is it, what is it?” her employer asked. She had never told them she was a victim of labor trafficking. Her employer knew that she was often busy at four p.m. on weekdays, but had no idea she was meeting with her lawyer those days. She told them the whole story right there in the car.
“We have trafficking here?” her employer asked.
He told her to go celebrate, handing Judith a hundred-dollar bill. She called her Filipino friend who was also in Nantucket. They went out and split a lobster and a bottle of beer.
It is the morning of February 4, 2015 and Judith is getting ready to pick up her kids from JFK Airport. She has dinner ready at nine a.m. — too excited to put it off until evening. The kitchen is packed, fish piled on top of each other in a metal tray. A miniature tree of brightly colored marshmallows on wooden stakes casts shade on a steaming pile of prawns. She has spent the past two years saving up enough money to fly her kids over.
Judith’s rented apartment in Jamaica, Queens is above a dentist’s office in a two-story house that looks like it would fit better by a beach in Cape Cod than on Hillside Avenue. She’s lived there a year, finally able to afford an apartment after nearly six years of relentless work. It has an extra room for two of her four kids to sleep in. The other pair will sleep in the living room with her.
The Damayan Migrant Workers Association has organized a community of women, all victims of human trafficking, and their children, to assemble at Judith’s home and accompany her to JFK to greet her four children.
They pack into minivans and make the fifteen-minute drive to the airport. Judith’s ear is glued to her phone. She is calling her kids, who are still in the air, leaving voice messages for when they arrive. She rushes out of her cab and starts scanning the airport, her friends trailing behind. They lose her by the Virgin Airlines check-in desks. But her red coat gives her away, streaming down the escalator.
At the arrivals’ waiting area, Judith hurries through every open door. At one point she is led out of the baggage claim area by airport security, having somehow evaded them to get far beyond the designated waiting zone.
About twenty people have now assembled around Judith. She gets a voice message that her kids have landed and the group cheers. They are eagerly pressed up against the short metal fence that separates arrival passengers from their families. They wait and wait. More travelers arrive and Team Judith props themselves up on their toes again to see better. Still no sign of the children.
And then her four children are finally there. Judith runs down the length of the metal gate, wiping tears from her eyes with a napkin that had already weathered hours of on-and-off crying. Everyone hugs and cries, takes pictures and poses. Judith reaches, kissing at her children’s faces, embarrassing them; they pull away. The youngest, Jhon-Michael, is now twelve years old. The last time he lived with his mother, he was just two and a half.
That night at her apartment the children ceremoniously introduce themselves to this community of hurt families. All of the women over twenty-years-old have some sort of trafficking tale. They do karaoke — the older women shameless and belting, their kids playing guitar.
Judith has snuck outside. She takes pictures of the kids out in front with their borrowed winter coats on. It is their first time seeing snow.
“Tomorrow we will buy winter shoes,” says Jhon-Michael, who is wearing sandals.
While Judith describes being reunited with her kids as her “sunshine,” the reality is not quite so bright. Judith says that she “doesn’t know these kids’ attitudes, yet.” They need to relearn what it is like to be a family.
Sometimes Jhon-Michael ignores her, turning his back on his mother, saying, “Be quiet,” and asking “When are we gonna get our Green Cards so we can go home?” She thinks he might be punishing her for their years apart. Only twelve, he is already saving money to go back to the Philippines. He does not like it in America where it is always cold, and he misses his father. At Kmart, the day after his arrival to the United States, he threw a temper tantrum while picking out winter shoes.
The family’s future is unclear. Judith’s husband is trying to save money to come to the U.S. and reunite with the family. He and Judith are trying to patch things up. When he finally is able to afford the trip over, and has his papers in order, they are going to try to “work it out for the good of the family,” Judith says.
Judith is still a full-time domestic worker and constantly cash-strapped. JV, now twenty-two, has a degree in nursing, but is cleaning offices a few hours a week to supplement his mother’s income. Her daughter Katherine, twenty, stays home and helps Judith take care of the kids. The two youngest boys, Jhon-Michael and James, fourteen, face going to a New York City public school with limited English abilities.
Judith is filled with hope for her family and their future, but it is still difficult to shake her fears. One of the first lessons Judith taught her kids about living in New York City was how to stand in the subway station. When the train rolls in, you’ve got to keep your back to the wall, she told them. Someone might come by and push you in.